A Brand-New Hobby

by Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

We’ve all heard of people picking up new and interesting hobbies through this pandemic. Baking bread, knitting, photography, jogging, woodworking, cooking. As a person whose main hobbies are reading and writing, I felt pretty well set up. But after almost a year of this pandemic, I must say there’s only so much reading and writing one person can do.

I looked for a new hobby, excited at the prospect of picking up something useful. The one issue: my delayed motor skills and various disabilities. My hands shake too badly for photography. Cooking is a study in my pathetic knife skills (and often a study in how many times I’ll cut my fingers). I have fibromyalgia, which makes jogging incredibly painful. Knitting? Embroidery? Painting? A pipe-dream.

I often struggle with feeling somewhat useless because of my motor skill issues. I feel that I lack something that others have without thought. Not everyone is artistic, but anyone can hold a paintbrush and paint a straight line. Anyone can mince veggies with enough practice. Anyone but me.

I bought a skateboard on a lark one day. I’d always wanted to learn how to skate, but never took the time to do so. I thought perhaps I would practice a little each day, and maybe, finally this could be my new hobby. 

I proudly mounted my skateboard for the first time over the summer … and promptly fell on my ass. The board shot out from under me like a rocket, speeding down the sidewalk. I sat, stunned, nursing my bruised knees. My ego was even more bruised. This is why I never try anything new, I thought furiously. This is why I stick with what I’m good at — academia, theatre, books. Not physical activities. 

I stormed inside, vowing I’d never skateboard again. 

That is, until the next day. I crept cautiously out of my house, as if someone was going to swoop down on me. I placed my skateboard on the ground and climbed on. I got my balance and just sort of … stood there. That was all I needed to do. 

Slowly, each day, I got better and better. One day, I made it down the sidewalk without falling. One day, I felt brave enough to skate in the road. And eventually, by the end of the summer, I was racing through the neighborhood with my dog, who pulled the skateboard as I sailed behind. 

I was so proud of myself for sticking with skateboarding. I’m not very good at it, but it’s fun. It’s simple. And more than that, I proved something to myself: I am capable. My motor skills may be delayed, and it may take me a long time to absorb these kinds of skills, but I did it.

And if I can do it, anyone can. 

Beautiful Books Part II

By Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

As the pandemic has gone on, I have read more than I’ve read in years. About a month back, I wrote an article on some of my favorite books that I highly recommended for pandemic reading. I’m back with an updated list.

Image result for franny and zooey

In this novel, told in dueling perspectives by brother Zooey and sister Franny, Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger tells the story of a young woman’s religious crisis. Franny is a college student who has a breakdown at the state of the world. She’s lost, confused, and feels that no one understands her concerns. Her brother Zooey, an actor, attempts to revive her spirits through an extended monologue. At turns, he berates her and encourages her, and attempts to work through his own existential angst as well. It’s a really provocative little book that has broken my heart each time I’ve read it. Salinger presents two really flawed characters that are concerningly relatable. It’s an excellent novel to make one reflect.

Image result for an indigenous people's history of the us

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Rozanne Dunbar Ortiz is a harrowing but incredibly important read. It presents a history too — including myself — few know about.  The genocide of America’s Indigenous peoples is presented in minute deatail, and the bloody cost of white Europeans’ settler colonialism. It is an intense read, but one I was very grateful for. 

Image result for alabama moon

Alabama Moon by Watt Key is actually a young adult novel, but has a permanent place on my shelf. It tells the story of ten-year-old Moon, a boy raised in the wilderness by his father who has an unhinged distrust of the government. Moon is entirely self-sufficient and knows how to live off the land. After his father dies, he is forced into the system, and learns to make friends, defy authority, and eventually find happiness with people who love him. It’s told in Moon’s perspective, and his childish wisdom is at times painful to read. The novel is engaging and incredibly well-written.

Image result for love in the time of global warming pen

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block is a post-apocalyptic novel told in some of the most poetic, beautiful language I have ever read. It’s modeled on the story of The Oddessy, and its hero, Penelope, meet a rag-tag cast of queer kids on a mission to save her family. It’s a whimsical work of magical realism, Greek mythology, and queer fiction. It’s a quick read, and an awfully depressing one, but the work and its sequel, The Island of Excess Love, are some of the best queer fiction I have ever read!

Image result for coal mountain elementary book

Lastly, and a very recent addition of my favorites, is Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowack. It’s a book of poetry, newspaper articles, and personal testament that tells the story of the dangers of the coal mining industry. It features articles about everyday collapses and mining accidents in China, the personal recollection of a miner in West Virginia who lives through a collapse, and a disturbing lesson plan (which is real, and one can find online), to teach children about the benefits of the mining industry. It’s a really thought-provoking work, and the poetry is beautiful.  

A Little Patience

I’ve never been a very patient person. Even as a child, my parents joked that impatience was my middle name. What can I say? I like instant gratification. I have surprises. I like things done quickly and efficiently. I like a routine that works like a well-oiled machine. 

My impatience had worked well for me when I worked in a restaurant. The routine each day was predictable. We’d race to see who could get their closing duties done fastest and neatest. I could do the work in my sleep. I’d pop out the door at 6:00 PM on the dot every day. 

I knew at some point I’d get a gut-punch in the name of teaching me patience. Everyone had warned me that someday, I’d really have to slow down and be at ease. I’d have to understand that not everything happens at the light-speed I prefer. In the words of a less-than-kind (but still correct) friend, I’d have to relax and pull the stick out of my … well, you can guess where. 

When I started working with the elderly, I hadn’t factored the immense amount of patience it would require. I’d taken the job because I love people, and it had seemed like very meaningful work. Those two facts are still true, but the patience it has taught me was more than I ever expected. 

I work primarily with dementia patients, and working with compassion is of the utmost importance. Dementia sufferers live their life in a perpetual state of confusion. Dates, names, places — the wires become crossed and they get befuddled. Sometimes this confusion causes them to believe you are their child or late spouse. Sometimes it causes them to be aggressive and afraid. Patience is literally the greatest gift you can give to someone with memory problems. You’ll hear the same story ten times in an hour. You’ll gently remind them of your name at least twenty times a day. You’ll redirect them away from a phone call they just made, and insist on making again. You’ll come to know their life, their triggers, their fears like the back of your hand.

And what’s more beautiful than that? To know someone’s life in an intimate and intense way, and assist them through their fear and confusion. Being a caregiver isn’t easy. The work is often difficult, emotionally exhausting. The lessons I have learned from it, however, have been invaluable.

I have become a more patient person. I’ve become more forgiving. And I love this person I’ve become! I’m so thankful to my clients for teaching me this lesson and allowing me into their lives. 

Quarantine Friendships

by Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

It’s crazy to think I haven’t seen most of my friends in almost a year. Save for a small group that lives together, my household has been on a very strict lock-down since last March. I work with the elderly and one of my roommates works in the medical field, so we’re very careful. That said, I genuinely don’t think my friendships have suffered for it. I’ll present a little field guide on how to keep friendships alive in this uncertain time.

  1. Don’t underestimate the power of Zoom: Since I’m an Android-user, I can’t Facetime people. However, I haven’t let that stop me! Zoom has been a saving grace. My cabaret can meet, my classes can meet, and my work friends can meet. It helps get large groups from various walks of life together safely.
  2. Good-old fashioned phone calls: I’m not the biggest fan of talking on the phone. I’m hard of hearing, so I have trouble picking apart what people are saying. That said, I’ve taken some time to have extended conversations with my father, my best friend, etc. It’s an excellent way to pass an hour, and with the speaker phone, I can do chores or homework while I listen. People are always kind enough to repeat themselves and speak slower — a win! 
  3. Netflix watch parties/video games: I was never much of a TV person (or a gamer!) before quarantine started. I much prefer books. That said, it’s so much fun to have movie nights with friends where we pick the worst movies we can imagine. It’s been a riot to play Club Penguin and Poptropica, Animal Crossing and Mario Kart (so maybe I’m still not much of a gamer!) with friends. We’re harkening back to our childhoods! 
  4. Be vulnerable: I’m not a therapist, but I do have a large emotional bandwidth. I want my friends to know I’m there for them. I want them to know I’m a person they can rely on. Because of this, they provide the same in return. I’m not so afraid to accept help anymore. I can shoot a text saying I’m having a hard day. I know I’ll get a loving reply. It’s been wonderful to not be stoic all the time.

Quarantine remains a very difficult time. I miss my friends. I miss cuddle piles and hugs. I miss wild parties. I miss going to the movies. I miss performing onstage. That said, the quality and care of my friendships haven’t suffered through COVID, and I don’t anticipate that changing any time soon!

Store-Bought Stability

by Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

Content warning: discussions of addiction, mental illness. 

“If you don’t have your own, store-bought is fine!” The Ina Garten saying was heard often in my house growing up, as Food Network was my mother’s favorite channel. I never paid it much heed. It was just something a TV personality said a lot. No great significance. 

That was, until I was scrolling through Twitter one day and saw a piece of art that took me by surprise. There was a framed cross-stitch someone had made that said, “If you can’t make your own serotonin, store bought is fine!” It featured a little serotonin molecule. How cute, I thought. It was always good to see positivity around taking medication for your mental illness.

I knew it wasn’t for me, though. I’d grown up with older siblings addicted to various substances. A therapist that dolled benzos out like breath mints had earned one of them a stint in rehab. I would hardly take Aspirin after that. I knew my fear of pills wasn’t rational, but I was so afraid of ending up like my older sisters. If I avoided all pills, I reckoned, then I couldn’t possibly get addicted to them. Right? 

As I grew older, my attitude towards substances slowly changed. I understood that drinking a few beers after work wouldn’t turn me into an alcoholic. Hanging out with my friends who smoked wouldn’t make me a drug addict. But pills — I was still terrified of those. 

While I worked through my own drug trauma, I knew there was something deeper at play. I knew I was mentally ill. 

I’d known since I was around fourteen that there was something wrong with my brain. My emotions were (and are) huge. My highs were euphoric, but my lows were hysterical. I stayed up for days at a time and never stopped thinking about suicide. Certain traumatic events in my life affected everything I did. 

But then again, there was this other side to me. The gregarious student, the cheerful performer. The extrovert always in a good mood, always ready to lend an ear. It’s hard to reconcile that I could be such a happy, loving person but have such darkness inside me. That was, until I was diagnosed with bipolar II and PTSD. My care team proposed three different medications: one to stabilize my moods, one to help me cope with my depression, and one to assist my sleep. 

I’ve been taking my medication diligently since then. I feared taking them in the beginning. But I took the plunge, voiced my fears to my care team, and worked accordingly. And I feel much better. I haven’t been suicidal in weeks. My mania is tempered. I can sleep for more than three hours a night. 

I’m happy. And you know what? I couldn’t make my own stability. It turns out that store bought is just fine after all.

Quarantine Blessings Round II

by Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

Toward the beginning of quarantine, I wrote a blog about blessings in disguise. I’d loved the one-on-one time with my fiancee, the laser-focus on school I’d been able to employ, the learning of my own capabilities. Now, nine months into this unprecedented time in our lives, I’m back with another list of positives. 

Before I begin, I must note: I don’t take this lightly. I suffered economically, lost my job, lost a grandparent to COVID, and found out a week ago that my other grandmother was recently diagnosed with it. It is a terrible, devastating thing. I know everyone has suffered incredibly. That said, if I don’t find a little light in the darkness, I’ll go crazy.

So here is a list of quarantine blessings, round II:

-A new job: I had previously worked in a pub I fondly referred to as “the hell restaurant.” Without revealing too many details, let’s just say the place was falling apart, unsanitary, and managed poorly. I’d worked there since the age of seventeen, honestly unsure if I could ever do anything else. I was finally forced to make a move around July. My job kept me on the hook, assuring me I was still employed, while asking me to work for free and refusing to schule me when I protested. I couldn’t take it anymore! I jumped careers. I now work as a caregiver to the elderly, something I’d wanted to do since I was sixteen. I LOVE my job now. The pay is better and the work is monumentally more fulfilling. I love people, and now my entire job is to gift others with empathy and patience. It’s so rewarding.

-A new relationship: My fiancee and I finally made things official with our other partners. We’d been dancing around each other for months, and quarantine finally gave us the uninterrupted  time to hash everything out. Boundaries have been laid in place, expectations have been clearly defined. I know polyamory isn’t for everyone, but it has made me so incredibly happy. I have three partners who I cherish in different ways. 

-A new degree: As stated in a previous article, I’m working on the first year of my graduate degree in addition to finishing my senior year. Once undergrad is finished (and I’ve written my honors thesis), I’ll be halfway through my master’s. I’m both proud of myself and excited for direction and structure.

-A new hobby: I love learning. It’s one of my passions. I’ve developed a love for podcasts over this quarantine period, and I’m learning so much. History, science, true crime, social justice — any topic that I want to learn about is at my fingertips! I’m a little behind the times, I suppose, but it’s so exciting! 

Even though this year has been difficult and devastating, there have been a lot of new and exciting opportunities. I can’t wait to see what 2021 has in store for me!

Under/Graduate

By Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

I make my home in academia and love it dearly. I started with the PSU Honors College at seventeen and am now in my senior year, having turned 21 a week ago. I’m also completing my first term of my expedited graduate degree. 

While I love college, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of imposter syndrome. I’ve always been something of a dynamo when it came to school — starting grades too early, competing with people much older for academic awards, taking as many credits as possible. In my entire career at PSU, I’ve taken one term off, which was this last summer. While it looked great on academic resumes, it’s not great for my mental health. 

My nosedive into academia began as a trauma response. Both of my older siblings were completely off the rails, and I saw how it destroyed my parents. My home life was focused on their sobriety, their stints in rehab, their damage. I grew up terrified of drugs and alcohol. I thought if I made good grades, kept my nose clean, and did enough community service, it would benefit me two-fold: I wouldn’t be another problem child and I could get out of my turbulent home ASAP. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. I ended up with a physical disability and suffered severe mental illness, obviously causing worry. In addition, there was no way to afford on-campus housing. Because I was only seventeen, no one would rent to me. 

I moved out at eighteen and kept up with my studies. I’d changed my major to something that made me much happier. But it still wasn’t enough. An A-minus would cause a breakdown. I was working, performing in a year-round cabaret, out until god knows when every night, and barely sleeping.

Now, at 21, I’ve finally found something of a balance, but it came with a steep price. My self-worth is all tied up in academia. The senioritis is kicking in just as I’m beginning my second degree. Being so young compared to my graduate classmates is absolutely intimidating. 

And yet.

I refuse to drop out. I refuse to give into my imposter syndrome. I am here because I earned my place. The quality of my work speaks for itself. And I love academia —– my relationship with it is much healthier than it used to be. 

In the end, I am working every day to untangle my self-worth from my grades. I work to pull my identity away from “young student.” And I’m slowly succeeding one day at a time.

Beautiful Books

by Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

If you know me personally, you know that I am a reader. Reading was my first hobby, and writing my first love. People always come to me for book recommendations. I suppose I’m the stereotypical English major, nose always buried in a novel. If you are looking for something new to read this winter break, I’ve compiled a very short list of some of my very favorite books:

The Song of Achilles: A Novel: Miller, Madeline: 9780062060624: Amazon.com:  Books

Firstly, there is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It tells the tale of star-crossed lovers Achilles and Patroculus in the Trojan War. In other words, a queer take on Homer’s The Iliad. The book is tragic and will leave you crying your eyes out. The beauty of the language is stunning. The metaphors the author uses will leave you breathless. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel: Ward, Jesmyn: 9781501126062: Amazon.com:  Books

Next, there is Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. This is another book where the soaring language sends the reader on a journey. It focuses on intergenerational trauma of a Black American family, told in dual perspectives of neglectful young mother and precocious son. The novel is a work of speculative fiction that is both frightening and gorgeous. 

Amazon.com: Les Miserables (Signet Classics) (9780451419439): Hugo, Victor,  Fahnestock, Lee, MacAfee, Norman, Fahnestock, Lee, Bohjalian, Chris: Books

Following, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is truly my all-time favorite novel. It’s a story of human redemption and political revolution following a colorful cast of characters. The principal character, Jean Valjean, truly represents how even the most jaded and callous individuals can be both failed by society systems and redeemed through acts of kindness. I may sound like a broken record, but beautiful language and clever wording is truly what draws me to a book. If you can muddle through 1,500 pages of Victor Hugo’s very heady writing, this is the book for you.

Circe - By Madeline Miller (Hardcover) : Target

Once again Madeline Miller makes my list of all-time favorites with her novel Circe. The story centers around the famous witch of The Odyssey who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs. It brings sympathy to a character who is otherwise one-dimensional and villainous. Miller’s Circe is one of the most nuanced and multifaceted characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading about. Though the book follows Circe through centuries of isolation, there is never a dull moment in the story. My only wish was that it be a few hundred pages longer!

The Starless Sea - By Erin Morgenstern (Hardcover) : Target

Lastly, I offer you The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, who gained acclaim for her novel The Night Circus (also an incredible read!). If I have said before that I love beautiful writing, this novel is the definition of it. The novel follows a young academic constantly lost in books. He falls into a universe contained within a subterranean library and meets several dashing characters. It’s a story of lost loves, life-changing books, and the bond that brings readers together.   

Too Much Love to Give

by Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell 

Love has always come easily to me. I’ve never struggled to adore humanity, to put the utmost effort into my friendships, to forge meaningful romantic relationships. But what happens when you have too much love? Or at least … you think you do?

I’ve joked for many years that I’m in love with everyone I know. All kinds of love! Deep platonic connections, strong familial bonds, and of course endless crushes. In high school, I had a few long-term boyfriends. Each relationship lasted at least a year, and each meant the world to me. Through all of these relationships, I constantly found myself falling for other people. I loathed this about myself. I tried so, so hard to not catch feelings for anyone else. But it didn’t matter — boy, girl, nonbinary person, my heart was just fickle. Or was it? My dedication and love for my actual partners never faded. It just sort of … coexisted. I’d never dare so much as flirt with someone when I was in a monogamous relationship, but  … why did I want to? I respected my boyfriends. I cherished them. I valued their feelings and felt like a horrible partner. Was I just a flighty teenager or was I something else? Was I forcing myself into long-term dating too young, or was there another term for what I felt? 

When I discovered polyamory, it felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt like I wasn’t broken, or a bad person, or not in control of my emotions. I was just … me. A person whose heart was too big to love just one person. And one day, I’d find other people who thought like me. 

Polyamory is complicated and there’s no rulebook. Each person has their own boundaries and needs. Each relationship is different and interesting and a whole new adventure. Sometimes there is jealousy — it is honored, appreciated, and worked through. Sometimes there is confusion. Sometimes there is joy. In many ways, being in a polyamorous relationship is exactly like being in a monogamous relationship; you just share your love with more than one person.

It’s not for everyone, and I absolutely respect that. Polyamory is trial and error, especially as a young person making my way in the world. In many ways, the way I live is fairly unprecedented in my own family, so making finding my own way in life is something I’m familiar with. I’m the only queer, trans, and disabled person in my family. The second person in my entire family (extended and immediate) to ever go to college. Polyamory is just another facet of my life in which I make my own roadmap.

I’m proud of how much love I have, for the world and for my partners. I’m proud of the attentive and compassionate person I am to those I love. And I’m proud to love in the way I do.  

Hair-Don’t

by Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

I was scrolling through my Snapchat memories today and came across a picture of myself that gave me pause. In it, I’m smiling, a finger poked into my cheek. My tongue is stuck out and my eyes are closed. A goofy filter adds devil horns and oversized glasses to my face. It’s a pretty normal selfie of a happy 20-year-old.

That said, a few words in the caption reveal it wasn’t just a picture. “So, I’m bald now! Here’s the cut!”

My head is shaved down close to the skin in the photo. It was the first picture I took of myself after that drastic haircut. I still remember the mindframe I was in at the time: straight-up panic and self-loathing.

I’d had a floppy bleach-blonde mohawk that I loved. I’d shaved it all off in a moment of what I fondly refer to as “crazy manic idiocy.” It was a snap decision. I’d wanted to do something new with my hair for a while, and it seemed like the best thing in the moment. 

Now, I’d pulled off a mohawk very well. The sides and back of my head were shaved, I thought, so it wouldn’t be that different, right? Oh, so wrong. Some people can pull off a shaved head. It looks fantastic on them! I cannot. I looked like an egg. And much more importantly, I felt crushed. 

I’ve never attached much of my self-worth to my looks, but that haircut began the most self-conscious year of my life. I never never without a hat. I had an arsenal of self-deprecating jokes at the ready. I literally stopped looking in the mirror. It shook me in a way I didn’t expect. I wish I had taken the time to truly think about my drastic haircut before going with it.

“Hair grows back, Julien,” my fiancee kept reminding me. “Just give it time.”

And eventually, my hair did grow back. It’s now a shaggy blonde mop — a little overgrown, a little wild, just how I like it. It took a few disastrous trims, a short-lived (and regrettable) mullet, and a lot of patience, but eventually, my hair grew out. And my friends didn’t stop being my friends because of a bad haircut. My fiancee wasn’t suddenly disgusted by me. My family didn’t shun me. That’s insane. In this year of regrowth, I think I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person:

— I do care about how I look. I lied to myself and said that I didn’t for years because I’m not conventionally attractive. But I do. I want to look good and love how I look. I want to feel confident when I walk down the street. And that’s okay! It didn’t make me (or anyone!) vain or shallow.

— On the other side of that coin, no one but me really cares about how I look. The haircut didn’t affect anything in my life except my own self-confidence. 

— Hair is impermanent and doesn’t define your entire look! 

— Beanies and baseball caps are a great accessory and shouldn’t be underestimated!

— And last but not least, it’s alright to have a bad haircut! And it’s alright to admit that it just doesn’t suit you! There is bravery in being honest.